CULLODEN, 1746, is a turning point of Scottish, British and indeed European and world history. The full title of Trevor Royle’s book Culloden (2016) suggests the extent of the consequences of the event: Culloden: Scotland’s Last Battle and the Forging of the British Empire. His study begins: “Drumossie Moor, dawn, Wednesday 16 April 1746” but later chapters move across North America, Canada, the Caribbean and India, before returning to Europe, Scotland and modernity.

The representation in Gaelic literature of Culloden and what it signified makes a study of that literature, even in translation, a vital corrective to that of more exclusively English or Scottish literature in Scots and English. That representation is both explicit, in poems of lament, rage, grief or recuperation, and implicit, in the assumptions from which the compositions themselves arise.

There is always a counterpoint between songs and poems that refer to things that are perennial, and those which spring directly from contemporary historical events.

April 2020 is like no other time on Earth. And yet some things persist. This month is 700 years since Arbroath, but only 274 years since Culloden.

Many of the most piercingly beautiful songs of the Culloden era are anonymous. One of the sweetest is Mo Rùn Geal Òg / My fair young love, by Christiana Fergusson. In Songs of Gaelic Scotland (2010), Anne Lorne Gillies comments: “This is the abiding Gaelic memory of Culloden: a woman left behind, weeping for the husband she has lost and for the life she will now have to lead.” Also rooted in its history is The Battle of Culloden by John

Roy Stuart (1700-1752). And the terrifying magnificence of Dugald Buchanan (1716-68) envisioning The Day of Judgement is unforgettable: “The sky is all scarlet! Now Christ’s here and drives / Through black clouds an opening: Judgement arrives!”

Maybe most vigorous satire of the late 18th century, in Culloden’s aftermath, is A Song to Dr Johnson by James Macintyre (1727-99). Along with Robert Fergusson’s poem to Johnson, this ought to be as well-known as Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775) itself, as necessary counterbalances. Macintyre erupts into fireworks of abuse. These are my own versions of some of the more pungent lines:

You’re dragging your slime-yellow belly, slowly, you big ugsome toad,

Sluggishly, heavingly, crawling, and oozing along the low road –

A soft slug sleazily slipping, clutching a venomous load as you must,

A slithering lizard, down in the grass, a slow-worm there on the road, in the dust –

A bluebottle greedily gripping its rancid pittance of grub, farcical,

A rabid dog with its eyes on the bone, a badger, its nose turned round up its arsicle 

I would stuff your mouth full with a gag – big enough for its copious cave –

It would stay there as long as you live – till the day you will rot in your grave –

One passage in Johnson’s journal describes his disdain for certain Highlanders who helped him who could not speak English. Macintyre’s premise is the conviction that after enjoying his accommodation among the people of Scotland, Johnson abused their hospitality, returning to England to spread slander and lies about them.

And yet, the story is not so simple. It never is.

But let’s end with a sweeter song from earlier times, poem XV from Heroic Poetry from the Book of the Dean of Lismore, in Alan Riach’s English version, below.

The Secret Tale

A secret tale I carry

No-one shall hear it till you:

Finn went out with five men

Over the smooth grass sward

Ossian, Diarmid, Oscar, MacLugh

Conan and Finn himself, altogether

Tell me, said Finn, the conqueror,

What music you find the sweetest of all?

Conan declared for the music of battle

He had lost his good sense when he said so –

Oscar declared for sound of the sword blade

Slicing the neck so the bad head flies off –

Diarmid declared for the voices of women

In soft conversation, each with each other,

“What though their love were not for me…”

MacLugh said the sound that came from the chest

Of his hound, when he drove the deer into the wood,

Was the sweetest of all, for the hunt was about to begin –

For me, then, said Finn, the music most dear

Is that of the banners and flags in the wind

Raised when the warriors move into battle

And the sound of the helmets, the music of gold –

For me, whispered Ossian, nothing will please

Of these you extol, though their virtues are clear

For me, when my last poem’s sung,

Fair reward freely given, security

Safely bestowed, my delight is to listen to music

Played on the clarsach, gentle and clear

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